Saturday, 13 January 2018

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2017

Ah, 2017.  The year of movies that I wanted badly to be great, even though there was probably never a hope they would be.  Screw you, Ghost in the Shell, for containing just enough moments of what a legitimate live-action adaptation of one of the finest science-fiction films of all time might have looked like to make me unable to properly hate you.  Screw you, Assassin's Creed, for your utter inability to get a single thing right when you were handed everything you could possibly need on a platter.  Screw you to the ends of the earth, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Worlds, for wasting so much potential, and screw you, Justice League, for your hideous death by committee, and for being released in what was effectively a workprint.  Screw you a little bit, Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale, for being merely pleasant and okay, when you could have been awesome.

Ah, 2017.  The year of the mediocre blockbuster, without a doubt, but also the year in which mediocre blockbusters were hailed as earth-shattering classics.  You know what?  Wonder Woman was fine, as pastiches of the Marvel formula go; but technically it was a bit scrappy, its central character arc was broken beyond redemption by an irredeemable plot twist, its effects work was cheap, and its final boss fight was perhaps the worst a DC movie has yet committed.  And don't get me started on Blade Runner 2049, a badly-acted triumph of running time over narrative that managed to persuade people through sheer force of production design that a plot recycling ideas from half a dozen better movies was some kind of intellectual tour-de-force.  But at least the writers didn't kill off a female character every time their sloth-like plot stalled completely.  Oh, no, wait...

And this rant is already threatening to be longer than my actual top ten.  Let's list some movies, huh?

10) A Monster Calls

Truth be told, and given a few months of retrospect, I don't know that I actually enjoyed A Monster Calls all that much: it's more of a well-made, worthy movie than one that anyone's ever likely to fall in love with.  All the same, I'm awfully glad that something like this should have managed to exist in the film-making climate of 2017, and to not get shunted straight to the purgatory of Netflix.  There aren't, and never will be, enough genre films that deal honestly with topics like grief, guilt, and mortality, and even less are willing to show youthful protagonists experiencing those simple human horrors in ways that are real-feeling and don't demand (or even always allow) our sympathy.  And even if such films were ten a penny, I doubt they'd all offer us lovely, tactile animated sequences, or Liam Neeson as a tree monster, or Sigourney Weaver delivering some of her best work in years.  So while I couldn't love A Monster Calls enough to rate it higher on this list, I certainly did respect it, and I'm glad it exists.

9) Kong: Skull Island

I was a bit baffled by all the indifference this seemed to get; seriously, has anyone out there actually seen a kaiju movie?  Because I've watched a ton of the things this last year, and I tell you, the bar isn't that high.  Kong: Skull Island was no masterpiece - of course it wasn't! - but it was a pretty great example of the thing that it was, and what more can you reasonably expect from the subgenre?  (Okay, so I'll be answering that question further down the list, but still.)  Anyway, Skull Island: It had an ambitious, if bizarre, conceit, it was solidly made, the giant monster action was really rather good, and it had a terrific cast, even if none of them beside John Goodman and John C. Reilly were given anything particularly meaningful to do.  Also, it was weird as hell, especially by American blockbuster standards, and I for one am always glad to see big-budget film-making go wildly off the rails.  Skull Island felt like a B-movie that someone had spent far too much money making more than it did a traditional summer tentpole, making it precisely what I'd want from such an inherently misjudged project.

8) Colossal

There's a part of me that wants this to be at the top of the list.  Partly because of what it is - a giant monster movie, from the director of Timecrimes, in which Anne Hathaway is the giant monster, sort of! - and partly because absolutely no-one I know has even heard of it, and that's a criminal shame.  Is it really so hard to seek this stuff out instead of just obsessing about Star Wars and comic book movies for twelve months out of the year?

Apparently it is.  Yet Colossal was worth seeking out.  It's a mad old muddle of a film, and one that's far more concerned with the metaphorical possibilities of its central concept, which would normally annoy the hell out of me, except that Hathaway is so stunningly good and Vigalondo really does know his genre movies, even when he's mostly using them as infrastructure for bizarre character studies.  It's the kind of film I'd urge anyone to watch, even knowing that half of them (at least!) are likely to hate it - for its lumpy pacing, for its weird shifts in tone, for its fundamental dementedness.  Nonetheless, if you're at all interested in genre cinema then doesn't that make it exactly the kind of thing you ought to be tracking down?

7) The Great Wall

Well done, those people who got so indignant over a trailer cut to misrepresent a film to the American market that they persuaded themselves a Yimou Zhang movie was guilty of whitewashing.  Of course, that name probably doesn't mean a great deal to the kind of person who boycotts a film based on a trailer, instead of taking fourteen seconds to look at the IMDB page, or (god forbid!) watching it and making up their own mind about a movie with a Chinese director and a mostly Chinese cast and in which a large chunk of the dialogue is in Mandarin.  Oh, and in which the other non-Asian lead, with about equal billing to Matt Damon, is Latino.

And how I wish that all this righteous indignation was in the service of a slightly better film!  I really did enjoy The Great Wall, but not because it was any sort of masterpiece.  It's a giddy, silly, gorgeously colourful B movie that feels as though it was made by committee, but an impossibly weird committee that had no real understanding of either Eastern or Western markets.  Probably it was never going to be the breakout global success that it was clearly envisioned to be, but it's still a heck of a shame that such a fun film should be shot down months before it even graced a cinema screen.

6) War For the Planet of the Apes

The worst of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy?  Yeah, I think so.  But given that these movies were head and shoulders above most of what else has been going on in recent years, that still made for a blockbuster of rare style and intelligence.  Granted, its first half was atmospheric but aimless and its second half was exciting but predictable, and it would have been great to have those virtues carrying all the way through without the failings to dilute them; nevertheless, a solid ending to a superb franchise is no small thing, especially when its as basically well assembled as War For the Planet of the Apes.  Really, I feel bad that I don't have more to say; it feels like an age since I saw this one, I was half blind with an eye infection at the time, and if I'm truly honest, it just hasn't stuck in the memory the way the first two did.  So - a disappointment, but a good movie nevertheless.  At any rate, I'm sure going to miss these films and their regular dose of high-minded sci-fi.

5) Thor: Ragnarok

Just as I'd given up on Marvel's ability to make a genuinely excellent movie - or perhaps rather, given up on their interest in even trying to do so when they could simply plug hacks like Scott Derrickson and Peyton Reed into their film-making apparatus and produce perfectly functional mediocrity - along comes Thor: Ragnarok and the wonderful Taika Waititi, who hopefully proved to everyone that hiring a director with something approaching an individual vision and then letting them do their thing isn't automatically box office poison.  And while everyone praised the comedy, which was admittedly (if sporadically) wonderful, for me Thor: Ragnarok's biggest accomplishment was getting me absorbed enough into its silly story and wafer-thin characters that I actually gave a damn what was happening by the time the big action finale came around.  Couple that with some meaningful stakes in a Marvel movie for the first time in what seems like forever and a finale that actually shakes up the status quo and we have the first of these things since - what, The Winter Soldier? - that actually felt somewhat meaningful, beyond being a joyously absurd bit of frivolousness in its own right.

4) Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I'm not a big Star Wars fan.  I mean, Star Wars is very much not my thing; I like some science in my science-fiction, and I somehow never really watched the original trilogy as a kid.  Which is to say, my expectations going into The Last Jedi were relatively muted.  I'd heard enough to think that it might be a good film by the definitions of the franchise, and the presence of a director whose work I've liked in the past and who Disney had apparently not dicked about too much for once boded well.  I was ready for an exciting two and a half hours, maybe for some cool special effects, and for a story that would shift things along towards the next one without two much risk or deviation from all of that Joseph Campbell heroes' journey crap that these things thrive on.

What I sure as hell didn't expect was an interesting movie.  I mean, if there was one possibility that I'd have ruled out if you'd asked me, it was that I would sit for two and half hours routinely thinking "this movie is up to interesting things."  But that's precisely what I got: interesting images, interesting twists, interesting reinterpretations of stuff we thought was supposed to be canon, interesting ideas, an interesting (well, broken) narrative structure.  Not interesting characters, sadly, for the most part, since you can't have everything, and there's only so much of J. J. Abrams' mess that one film can be expected to clean up.  Still, for the course of an inexcusably long running time, I was not only consistently entertained but consistently interested, and that's an experience I hardly dare hope for when I go and see a big budget movie these days.  Really, I would be rating it more highly if it wasn't for all that dreadful Monte-Carlo-in-space crap, and for the fact that Daisy Ridley still couldn't act her way out of an unguarded room.

3) Shin Godzilla

I don't personally consider Shin Godzilla to be the greatest Godzilla movie ever made - because, of course, the original is basically the perfect version of itself - but I can certainly understand how some people have arrived at that conclusion.  And had I not been unlucky enough to see it in a showing populated and staffed by idiots, I might even have come close to that conclusion myself.

But probably not.  As much as what we got was in many ways exactly what you'd hope for with Hideaki Anno, mad genius behind the twisted anime classic Neon Genesis Evangelion, at the helm, and as much as that means a movie that truly gets on a gut level what it would mean for a modern city to be attacked by a giant, incomprehensible monstrosity torn from its worst nightmares - and though Anno then twists that around into something close to both parody and satire, without sacrificing its heart - nevertheless I find myself standing by my initial reaction that this isn't so much a movie for the established Godzilla fan.  It's a reboot, and a masterful one, but it hews awfully closely to a formula that we've seen (if the "we" in question has spent a large part of the year watching kaiju movies, anyway) many a time before.  All of which is to say that, if you've never encountered a Godzilla movie then Shin Godzilla will likely blow you away, and if you're more familiar with the franchise then a superlative example of a brilliantly entertaining formula is still enough to be considered a highlight of any film-going year.

2) Okja

Joon-ho Bong releases a science-fiction picture, it's widely considered to be a classic, and some media mogul decides that no-one in the UK should be allowed to watch it in cinemas.  My god, it's 2013 all over again!  Granted, Ojka isn't quite as brilliant as Snowpiercer was - or maybe it is and I just need to watch it again, since Snowpiercer took a couple of viewings to really click - and granted Netflix did put on the odd showing, but it still grates that this is increasingly the way things are headed: cinemas are for mainstream blockbusters, and anything remotely interesting is destined to go straight to TV, where we can all enjoy it as it was never intended to be watched, so long as we happen to have paid for whatever streaming service has snapped up the rights.

Anyway.  Okja.  Like I said, it's maybe not a second Snowpiercer; but it has more than its share of brilliance.  Like the titular super-pig, which, despite some imperfect effects work, is such a genuine creation that you soon forget you're looking at a special effect.  Or the performances, which aren't all brilliant, precisely, but are all fascinating in the extreme.  Then again, Seo-hyun An really is brilliant in the lead role, and whenever the film is focusing on her and her adorable monster of a pet, it's downright magical.  But if there's one aspect that pushes Okja from good to borderline masterpiece, it's that - unlike basically everything on this list, and most everything released this year - it's old-school science-fiction, with actual ideas and a pitch-dark commentary on the times we live in.  It's smart and sharp and funny and horribly bleak by its end, and it seems to have put me off eating red meat ever again, which is a hell of a lot more than most films accomplish.

1) Logan

I for one am gutted that Disney have bought up the movie wing of Fox, because this right here is what I want more of.  Fox's X-men movies have been more good than not, but it had been a while since they'd produced a genuine classic.  If Logan is perhaps not the absolute highlight - I still hold a lot of love for X-men 2 - it effortlessly slides into second place, while at the same time reevaluating just what the superhero movie is and can be in a way that no other film has attempted in what feels like an age.

Not only does Logan acknowledge that we're living in the middle of a glut of these things, and that its an entry in a franchise that is perhaps running close to exhaustion, it uses those facts to its immense advantage: Logan's world is even more tired out with superheroes than our own.  And if that was all that Mangold's bold genre hybrid was up to then that alone would be something.  But everyone involved is contributing their absolute A game - which is really saying something in the case of Patrick Stewart, who's been giving these things a degree of integrity they didn't always deserve from the beginning.  His decaying, damaged Professor X is a heartbreaking, terrifying creation, and one of the ways in which Logan feels like the first X-men movie in forever to really try and get under the skin of what a world in which super-powered mutants walked the earth would look like.  That the answers it comes back with are mostly horrible and despairing feels appropriate; that it still routinely manages to find real pathos amid the horror and despair is perhaps what tips the film from great to potential enduring masterpiece.  I'd feel a little surer if only Logan hadn't front-loaded all of its best material; nevertheless, that material is good enough that I'm still willing to throw about a term like "future classic."

Monday, 1 January 2018

2017: Achievement Unlocked

It occurred to me when I started planning this year-just-gone's concluding post that there's a bias inherent in the system: I always write these things at Christmas and Christmas is my least favourite time of year.  I mean, not Christmas itself, exactly, but the dark depths of winter are perhaps not the best vantage point from which to try and objectively summarize twelve months of one's life.  And usually when I look back a few months later, I'm surprised by how pessimistic I've been.

Which is to say, it feels like 2017 was a but rubbish right at this minute; but it's probably safe to assume that a large part of that is the dark and the cold and the fact that I've done next to nothing except line editing for what feels like a decade and is easily five whole months.  Argh, I'm so sick of editing!  And seriously, I'm never going to blunder into a situation where I have to deliver two manuscripts in immediate succession again, because doing so is an incredible, soul-sucking nightmare.  I swear, I've spent maybe two months of 2017 in the business of actually making up stories, and it hasn't been anywhere like enough.  Creatively speaking, I've had my ass kicked.  And that's not even to mention the unusually dreadful year I've had on the short fiction front, with a grand total of one new story sold in the entire twelve month period, a fact made all the worse by the weirdly disproportionate number of editors who just never bothered to get back to me or lost my story down the back of the sofa or whatever.

So, yeah, some stuff sucked.  But a lot didn't.  For a start, I got to try a couple of intriguing new sidelines: somehow I began a tangential career as an interviewer, and got to talk to Joanne Harris and Adrian Tchaikovsky in front of live audiences, both of which were amazing experiences; and thanks to Michael Wills and Digital Fiction Publishing, I got my teeth into slush-reading, which led me to some stunning authors I'd never have encountered otherwise and gave me the chance to help more people get to read their work.  Most importantly, for me at least, The Black River Chronicles are out there in a major way and finding readers: Level One is already proving popular, and with The Ursvaal Exchange released as of late November, we now have a fledgling series for readers to get their teeth into.  It's a book that I'm really excited for, the first I've had out that I felt went mostly right from the beginning and ended up being more or less exactly what I'd intended, and I'm eager to see what people make of it.  Especially since I'm really close to beginning the third book, which is another step up in ambition and another broadening of the world that Mike and I have concocted.  I love this series, and that there are increasingly other people out there who love it is reassuring to know.

And actually, on a personal level, 2017 has been a mostly solid year, too.  There were some crappy moments, sure - I could happily never end up in A&E with an eye infection again ever - and maybe a bit more work than I could reasonably cope with.  But I finally feel like I'm settled back in the north after my years of IT contracting in the wilderness, and that I have stuff going on here, whether it's pub-crawling around Sheffield with that Ian Sales bloke or board-gaming or my D&D campaign (and yay for my D&D campaign, the most fun that I could possibly have while pretending I'm researching for The Black River Chronicles!)  In fact, my birthday celebration, which somehow managed to drag together people from all across the spectrum of my life, was perhaps the nicest birthday I've had - and huge thanks to everyone who made it, your presence meant a lot.

Here's the really exciting thing, though, and the thing that definitively tips 2017 from an okay to a basically good year: this was the first year since I walked away from my regular job that I didn't have to dip into my savings even slightly.  While I didn't exactly manage to live off my writing income, I came considerably closer than on any previous occasion.  I have no idea if this is sustainable, let alone if a level of success where I get to write full time and not be majorly hard up is ever going to be on the cards, but I've already done a little better than I seriously expected to when I walked the plank out of my safe, well-paid IT career.

Oh, and a big part of the reason why is that I've sold another novel, which is due out next year.  I knew there was something else!  But that's kind of a secret right now, so I can't tell you which book it is or who the publisher is or anything at all useful.  The proper announcement should be along sooner rather than later, and it's probably enough to say that this is something wholly, wildly different from anything I've had out before, and that the publisher is one I'm thrilled to be working with, having seen the sort of extraordinary work they've released in the past.

So that was 2017.  I had a new novel out and sold a couple more, both of which are due for 2018.  I managed to keep my head above water; I get to keep doing the job that I (mostly!) love for another twelve months, at the very least.  And whether I end up looking back at this past year as a turning point or a lucky fluke, I feel as though I've proved to myself that the decision I made four and a bit years ago wasn't wholly idiotic, and that alone is enough to make 2017 a win.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 29

I now have enough nineties anime on the shelf for at least half a dozen more posts, so expect these to get a bit more regular again once we hit next year; my plan for the Christmas break is basically to watch and review a whole ton of this stuff.  I mean, that and to clean the house from top to bottom.  And probably a bit of family time, I guess; that's a thing people do at Christmas, right?  But I'm definitely grabbing the opportunity to watch some of the longer releases that have been waiting for absolutely months now.

Anyway, that's the future - and Christmas has defeated the best laid plans of better mice and men than me before now.  So for the meantime, let's get to the latest batch: we have Iria: Zeiram, Silent Service, Spirit Warrior: Festival of the Ogre's Revival and Mask of Zeguy...

Iria: Zeiram, 1993, dir's: Tetsurô Amino, Yoshimi Katsumata, Naoyoshi Kusaka, Naohito Takahashi

One of the pleasures of nineties anime that's hard to reproduce elsewhere is the science-fiction and fantasy miniseries, something that's largely fallen out of favour within anime itself and that has never seriously been a thing in the West.  A six-episode OVA can dig deeper into a story than a feature-length running time, without requiring the commitment of a full-length series; you can cover a great deal of mileage in six half hour episodes, as a show like Gunbuster attests.

And so it goes with Iria: Zeiram - to some extent anyway.  A little digging reveals the series to be a prequel to an earlier live action movie, somewhat confusingly called Zeiram, which would also get a live action sequel a year after this OVA came out.  Anyway, the anime tells the back-story of bounty hunter Iria, as a suspicious job dealt by a shady corporation leads to a confrontation with a seemingly unkillable alien that develops a whole host of unpleasant abilities in their subsequent, increasingly destructive encounters.

If that sounds a bit light as plots go, Iria: Zeiram compensates at least somewhat by providing plenty of shading around the edges.  Iria herself is thoroughly engaging, and an absolute bad-ass to boot, with a cool sci-fi gadget for seemingly every occasion.  And the world she inhabits is an enticingly weird mix of medieval Asian culture and retrofuturism that's pleasantly distinct from most of what was around at the time.  The supporting cast are tolerable company, with the highlight being grumpy, self-serving opposing bounty hunter Fujikuro and the lowest points usually involving a pair of street-urchin kids who are at least a lot less irritating than they might be.  And the animation quality is very good indeed, backed up by mostly solid design work and a terrific orchestral score.

For all that, I can't quite rave about Iria: Zeiram.  While it basically looks damn good, it also has an unfortunate tendency to resemble a Saturday morning kids cartoon, or at least a kid's cartoon from the early nineties.  After much consideration, I decided that this was mostly to do with some iffy vehicle designs and an overly peppy colour palette; on the latter front, when the animators tone it down a bit, the show really does look fantastic.  But the bigger problem comes down to what I said at the start: six episodes is room for a fair bit of story, and there isn't enough here.  There are some ins and outs, some subplots, and an agreeable amount of world-building, but basically the plot boils down to "Iria fights Zeiram", and once you realise that - and that certain crucial information is never going to be revealed because this is, after all, just a prologue - then everything surrounding the central conflict starts to resemble padding, albeit entirely pleasant padding.  At four episodes Iria: Zeiram would have been very good indeed; at six it falls more into the category of an engaging diversion with excellent production values.  That's still a win, but it's also a bit disappointing given how much there is to like here, and given what a terrific lead Iria herself makes for.

Silent Service, 1995, dir: Ryôsuke Takahashi

I've often joked fondly about the fact that nineties anime, at least nineties anime that made it as far as the shores of America and Britain, was not the most varied of art forms: watch any quantity of the stuff and you'll quickly notice that you're seeing an awful late of mecha, girls in skimpy outfits, tentacles, and Blade Runner pastiches.  Still, as par for the course as that may be, it's always a thrill to come across something spectacularly different.  Which brings us to Silent Service, a three-part OVA (neatly repackaged for its US release by Central Park Media as a single feature) that's certainly the only animated, politically-charged thriller about submarine warfare I ever recall seeing.

Say what you like about Central Park Media, who seem to have the most toxic reputation by far of all the companies that helped bring early anime releases to the West, but they certainly were willing to stray from the overly-beaten path on occasions.  Silent Service has none of the traditional genre elements - heck, the submarines don't even transform into giant robots! - and its tone is startlingly adult, with barely a whisper of comedy to lighten its tone.  It's also hugely cynical, and most of that cynicism is angled at Japanese-US relations, which must have been quite startling for the American viewers that CPM were presenting it to.  I mean, a story in which a war-mongering ginger-haired US president pushes the world to the brink of annihilation because an East-Asian country wants to become a nuclear power?  What could be more shockingly implausible?

But, cheap sarcasm aside, I don't want to say too much about the plot, because it's really good, a hugely satisfying sequence of scenes that play out like little puzzle boxes, in which the vital detail is usually figuring out what bit of cleverness sort-of-protagonist and sort-of-antagonist Captain Shiro Kaieda is up to, as his borrowing of a cutting-edge nuclear submarine secretly co-developed by the Japanese and US militaries sends both nations into a panic of fear and paranoia.  It really is thrilling stuff, and while the animation is never better than it needs to be to keep the story moving, it's at least that good: as an exercise in working a moderate budget to best effect, it's impressive.  And though it's a seemingly minor detail, the distinctive character designs are a huge help in keeping track of a large cast.  Most importantly, Takahashi's direction is topnotch, and his ability to ratchet up the tension is enviable.  Submarine warfare can be very exciting or very dull to watch, and Takahashi's firm grasp on his material ensures that it's always the former.  But even the dialogue scenes crackle with energy, thanks as well to a strong cast, in which Masane Tsukayama's performance as Kaieda particularly stands out.  In theory, we should distrust and probably dislike the character, but Tsukayama plays him with such calm confidence that we want to be on his side even when common sense suggests that maybe he's not on ours.

Really, I've little bad to say about Silent Service.  And there's plenty more to admire: the instrumental score is worthy of any top-drawer blockbuster and is far classier than anything you'd expect from an OVA, and whatever was done to cut the three episodes together into one was so seamless that I'd never have guessed this hadn't been a feature all along.  I can see that the ending might be divisive, though personally I liked it quite a bit; heck, I guess the whole thing could be divisive, and the other reviews I've seen seem nervous of the material, as though it's terribly controversial to suggest that the US isn't always particularly brilliant at being the world's policeman.  If that's the kind of thing that might upset you then stay clear, I guess.  If not, and particularly if you're hunting a nineties anime release that's entirely out of the ordinary, then Silent Service is a small treasure and well worth hunting down.

Spirit Warrior: Festival of the Ogre's Revival, 1988, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

The first thing that struck me about Festival of the Ogre's Revival was the truly lovely pen and ink backgrounds; gently abstract, richly atmospheric and thick with splotches of shadow, they were the perfect setting for a tale of supernatural skullduggery.  Unfortunately, the second thing I noticed was that nothing else looked remotely as good - and so the point, I suppose, is one of not judging by first impressions.  With character designs that are merely okay and animation that's mostly functional (and in one scene quite hilariously dreadful) the end product averages out at "a lot like all of those other late-eighties and early-nineties anime about invading demons."

Which is, unfortunately, the best that can be said for the release as a whole.  Part of a series of five films, each with a different director, Festival of the Ogre's Revival is apparently not regarded as a strong point of the series.  I can certainly imagine a good Spirit Warrior film based on the evidence of this one: apprentice mystic Kujaku is a serviceable protagonist, and the universe is appealingly weird, at least so long as you're down with the notion of weaponised Buddhism.  At any rate, I think that's what was going on; the film assumes a certain familiarity with its concepts that, even after watching a ton of similar titles, I can't really claim to have.*  And my real-world knowledge wasn't a great deal of help either, since none of the Buddhists I've met could throw magic fireballs at each other or summon demons.  Or if they could, they kept pretty quiet about it.

Kujaku certainly doesn't keep quiet about his abilities, and neither do his enemies; the result is a title that devotes an awful lot of time to action sequences that aren't terribly thrilling.  The plot is grounded in some fun notions and history, but it's all fairly cursory, with a twist that I saw coming a mile off, and it felt as though the entire second half was devoted to the battle against the big bad.  While I wouldn't complain about that in theory, the animation isn't up to the standard needed to make thirty minutes of people throwing magical attacks at each other exciting.  For a release that does solid work building mood in its quieter moments, that surely wasn't the way to go.  As a supernatural thriller, Festival of the Ogre's Revival might have been successful; as Buddhist Street Fighter it fares less well.

The result is a film (indeed a very short film, and one that feels shorter for not having much in the way of plot) that's perfectly serviceable and diverting to watch, but almost impossible to recommend.  A few gorgeous backgrounds are great and all, but however low we may sometimes set the bar around these parts, they're not enough to warrant a suggestion that you track down a title that's all but impossible to find.  Personally I'll stay on the lookout for other Spirit Warrior releases - there was plenty here that could have worked a great deal better given more room and more capable handling - but this particularly one will be going straight on the "to sell" pile.

Mask of Zeguy, 1993, dir: Shigenori Kageyama

In the opening scene of Mask of Zeguy, a samurai - real historical figure Hijikata Toshizō, who for our present purposes has travelled through time to second-world-war-era Japan - battles werewolf cyborgs, before flying off on a giant seaplane piloted by famous eighteenth century polymath physician, artist and inventor Hiraga Gennai.  Their course takes them through a floating aircraft graveyard and then, thanks to the fat black-and-white cat they're using as a compass, into a giant doorway in the sky.  This all happens in roughly the first five minutes.  And things get weirder from there.

On the face of it, what we have here is a fairly typical chosen-one second world fantasy sort of affair, with teenage heroine Miki being spirited away - if you will! - to a parallel world in which she's the reincarnation of a priestess and the only one who can unite the magical doodads and defeat the evil queen Himiko.  (Presumably this is the same Himiko who was queen of Yamataikoku in ancient Japan, though no-one ever feels the need to clarify the point.)  In practice, the 75 minute film - really two OVA episodes with a fair chunk of repeating footage, and so closer to an hour sans credits - is such a delightfully odd mess that it feels reductive to lump it in wholly with the many, many such similar stories.  Alice in Wonderland, for instance, didn't include motorbike-riding robot monsters, nor a character called Da Vinci who carries with him a puppet that emulates his every motion, nor a scene in which the living generator that powers the heroes' flying transport has babies.

Surely needless to say, I was entranced by this madness; I could never bring myself to be particularly negative about anything that vomits out absurd ideas and impossible characters at such an energetic rate.  But I'd be lying if I claimed Mask of Zeguy has many more cards up its sleeve.  The animation is adequate, and this is practically the first show I've seen with some legitimately crappy backgrounds; there's a sense of enthusiastic efforts being made on an inadequate budget, and the result is likable even when it's a bit embarrassing, but to say more than that would be too kind.  Cheap and cheerful might, on the whole, be the most generous praise one can legitimately offer.

So did I enjoy Mask of Zeguy?  Obviously I enjoyed it plenty.  Did it have its flaws?  Heck yes.  And would I recommend it?  In honesty, I suppose I can't, beyond saying that it's the sort of thing that if you happened to stumble across it on the telly and bothered to watch it, you'd go away with a giddy sense of pleasure and mild bafflement.  Only, we live in an age where no one really stumbles across things on TV anymore, and if they did, it certainly wouldn't be an obscure nineties anime show.  Which is a shame, because, while a long way from the sort of lost treasure I'm always pretending these posts are a hunt for, Mask of Zeguy is really a good deal of what I love: silly, energetic fun with more imagination than sense, made by people who obviously cared about the story there were telling even when they didn't have the space or budget needed to do it justice.


I feel like this was a good batch, despite a certain amount of evidence to the contrary.  I also feel like I've dipped into some very strange waters by this point, and maybe that's the true reason for my disproportionate enthusiasm.  Asides, just possibly, from Iria: Zeiram, there's nothing here that anyone much cares about anymore.  And yet Silent Service was brilliant, Mask of Zeguy was dopey but fun, and even Spirit Warrior had its moments.

Certainly my heroes of the moment are Central Park Media, who seem to have made a habit of cheerfully releasing just about anything and everything, and thus are a wholesome antithesis to the likes of Manga, who helped to leave an entire generation with the opinion that all anime was either cyberpunk or tentacle porn**.  Granted, if everyone had been watching Central Park Media releases instead, they'd probably just have concluded that anime was cheaply made, random crap, but you can't have everything, right?  At least not all the time and in the same place.

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27, Part 28]

* In particular, it reminded me a great deal of The Dark Myth - reviewed way back in July 2015 - which has some of the same faults, but compensates for them by being absolutely insane and intermittently brilliant.  But it's tough to be positive about any film that makes you want to watch The Dark Myth for fifty-five minutes!

** And only now, as I bother to do a bit of research, do I discover that Central Park Media were the original licensees of  Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend.  I guess if I had any journalistic integrity I'd rewrite that whole paragraph...

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Ursvaal Exchange Begins

It's out!  The second of the Black River Chronicles, The Ursvaal Exchange, is available to buy in print and e-book as of the end of last week.  If you enjoyed Level One, I genuinely think you'll love this one; it builds in so many fun ways on the groundwork Mike and I laid there, and develops the gang and the world they inhabit in some directions that I for one find really interesting.  And if you're new to the series, I'm confident that this second book stands well on its own - though it would probably make more sense to just grab them both and begin from the beginning!

I've talked so much about this novel by now that I think, right here, I'll back off to touch on an aspect I've never officially addressed.  Eagle-eyed readers might notice that there's one name rather than two on the cover this time, and that it's mine.  This is because my co-creator and publisher, Mike Wills, decided that his input into the series doesn't warrant taking a full author co-credit.  And while there's perhaps no easy answer as to what does or doesn't constitute co-authoring a novel, I didn't want to let that pass without taking an opportunity to point out how, regardless of what names go where, this series has been Mike's baby from the beginning.  In truth, the initial concept was all his, and there are countless moments and details that were either direct suggestions or that spun out of me musing on his suggestions and off-hand comments.  (Just as an example, Hule's entire arc this time around comes from a detail that I felt bad about not being able to work into Level One!)

The point being, though I'm now listed as the sole author of these books and will be going forward, in my heart The Black River Chronicles will always be Mike's playground: one he built the foundations of and then, effectively, paid me to run around in.  Writing professionally isn't always the easiest of jobs, despite what you may have heard, but there's such a thing as a dream writing gig, and for me, this is it; I'm utterly in love with this world and this concept and these characters, and it's a joy to be spinning these tales.  Had Mike never pondered where fighters, wizards, rogues and rangers learn the basic skills to do the things they do, I'd never have met Hule, Arein, Tia and Durren; had he never left me trying to figure out how the four of them could go on multiple quests in one novel without spending half the book wandering the countryside, there would be no Pootle.

And I have big, big plans for Pootle!  But perhaps I'd do better not to spoiler the third book - because, yes, there's going to be a third book, which I'm plotting out now and will be starting early in the new year.  Which, come to think of it, is also pretty major news, right?

In the meantime, there's The Ursvaal Exchange - which you can buy is print and e-book in the US here and in the UK here.  And for those who haven't seen the blurb yet, here's a little insight into what our second chronicle is about:
Student ranger Durren Flintrand had thought he was settling in at the Black River Academy for Swordcraft and Spellcraft. But when rebellious rogue Tia Locke uncovers a horrifying secret in the dungeons beneath the school, Durren quickly realises that the challenges he's faced so far were scant preparation for what lies ahead.  Along with magic-averse wizard Arein and blunt but good-hearted fighter Hule, he and Tia find themselves on Black River's first student exchange program: they're being sent to the Shadow Mountain Academy in the dank and dismal land of Ursvaal, and they're going whether they like it or not. 
At Shadow Mountain, things are done differently. No longer is Durren a ranger but a bard, despite his lacking the slightest notion of what being a bard involves. And not only that but Tia is acting even more strangely than usual, Hule is taking being a paladin awfully seriously, and Arein has a new party member with ideas very different to her own to contend with, in the shape of irascible cleric Cailliper Ancrux - who wants nothing less than to be involved with Shadow Mountain's unpopular newcomers. 
The four Black River students will have to relearn everything they thought they knew; but the threats surrounding them aren't about to wait. Can they hope to survive an uprising of the dead, the winged horror that haunts this desolate land, and an ancient plot risen from the blackest depths of Ursvaal's history? And even if the somehow should, can Durren possibly overcome his tone deafness and learn to play the lute?

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

On Invisible Words (Pt. 2)

I talked last time (and a very long time ago it was!) about why I'm not convinced that invisible words - that is, words so common that the reader's eye skims over them, effectively rendering them impossible to overuse - are really a thing, and how, even if they are, there remain good reasons to keep an eye out for those words that you're prone to over-favouring.

This is a dangerous topic to discuss too much, of course; I'd much rather readers don't go through my books with a fine-toothed comb hunting for all the instances of lazy word over-use, because I know damn well they'll find a few - and that despite the very best of efforts of me, my beta-readers, proofreaders, editors and copy editors.  Mistakes always slip through, and eventually you have to reconcile to the fact that every book needs to be called finished at some point.

Nevertheless, by the same measure you can but try, and with the second of the Black River Chronicles - and even more so with my work-in-progress White Thorne - I've been mixing up my approach in the hope that new tools or techniques might shed fresh light on the problem.  The degree of success hasn't been everything I might have hoped, and I still feel there must be a piece of software out there I don't know about that would make this job a thousand times easier.  (I've heard Scrivener suggested, but no-one seems altogether sure.)  At any rate, this is where I've got to so far...

I began with word clouds.  You know word clouds, right?  If not, here's one I made for The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.  Because it turns out free word cloud generators are awfully easy to find on the internet (this came from WorditOut) and a useful side effect of their functionality is that they list words in order of usage.  Plug your novel in there and, hey presto, you've got an insight into the frequency of your word usage, and from there it's just a matter of figuring out what you're okay with - eliminating every instance of "the" is likely to prove a tall order! - and what you hadn't realized you'd been doing and are ashamed about enough to address.

Only, the word cloud solution has its limits, and one of them is that the data it throws out, not being at all intended for fiction-editing purposes, isn't that well-suited.  So I moved on.  My next port of call was Edit Minion, which I'm a lot more inclined to recommend; maybe not so much for this precise problem but in general it's worthy of a gander, and where else are you going to find out if you're overusing Shakespearean quotes?

The problem remained much the same, though: trying to use a bit of software for a role it was never really geared for.  And by then I was running out of time to waste on hunting for solutions, and in need of something guaranteed to do the trick.  So in the end, I went old-school; like, really damn old-school.  And the tool I've ended up relying on most in recent weeks is the humble Find and Replace function in Word, which has a great deal more depth and functionality than you might ever have realised; I know I hadn't a clue until I really started playing.  But if you want to, for example, highlight every single instance of a word throughout your manuscript, then that's chump change for Find and Replace.  Or how about highlighting every different form of a word?  Or homophones?  Once you dig into it, Find and Replace is kind of awesome.

Anyway, the battle continues.  I've a long - and ever-growing - list of words that I know I use too often, and I'd heartily recommend to every author that they start developing one too, because it's steadily training me to vary up my vocabulary, and to seek out the right words rather than the obvious ones.  It's tough work, frankly, it's no fun and it's certainly not the sort of playful creativity that we all imagine writing's supposed to involve - but it does the trick.

Then again, maybe there's an even better way to be found.  And if I ever stumble across it, I promise to share in part 3!

Friday, 17 November 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 28

If there's one thing that sucks about doing these posts, it's that sometimes I really want to just chill out and watch some nineties anime, and I can't because I know I won't have a chance to review it while I can still remember what it was about.  That's been especially true lately, with my blogging time alarmingly scarce in the face of actual, proper work and real, meaningful news.  And that also means that the to-watch shelf is beginning to groan under a quite remarkable collection of hard-to-find releases that I've been grabbing whenever a cheap copy happens to surface.  If I'm long past searching for hidden gold, I suspect there's at least a bit of hidden bronze and maybe even a little hidden silver sitting there waiting.

Anyway, that's all the moaning I'll do about having exciting things happening that clog up my blog space!  Nineties anime, you'll always be my first love, but I'm afraid you don't pay the bills - and indeed, you routinely add to them!  But at least I managed to find time for Lupin the Third: The Secret of Twilight Gemini, A.LI.CEUrusei Yatsura Movie 5: The Final Chapter and Knights of Ramune...

Lupin the Third: The Secret of Twilight Gemini, 1996, dir: Gisaburō Sugii

You might argue that the unkindest thing you can do to a franchise is to let a certified genius loose on it; what better way to make every effort before or after sink into mediocrity?  And while 1979's The Castle of Cagliostro isn't a high-water mark in the career of master director Hayao Miyazaki, it's still a damn fun film, and better work than just about anyone else could have produced with the same material.

I mention this only because I couldn't stop thinking it as I watched The Secret of Twilight Gemini.

At this point I should probably admit that I don't even like Lupin the Third; I find the character kind of annoying, and what I've seen of the franchise away from Miyazaki's seminal effort to be obnoxious and excruciatingly sexist.  And so it goes with The Secret of Twilight Gemini, which I bought imagining it to be another theatrical release, only to discover that it was a mere TV special that someone decided deserved a Western DVD release.

It didn't.  It's predictable, disposable, often tiresome nonsense, with not much of a story and some intermittently horrid animation.  And it really is startlingly misogynistic, especially in regards to recurring series character Fujiko Mine, who spends all of about eight frames fully clothed.  This is the sort of thing where, had it come on the television when you were a kid, you'd have been vaguely amused for an hour and a half, except for how your fragile young mind would probably have been blown by the appearance of so many crudely-drawn bare breasts.  But now, more than two decades later, if you're not for some reason devoted to the misadventures of debonair cretin thief Lupin, I struggle to imagine any reason to revisit such a lackluster effort.

All right, the music's quite nice in places.  The film makes solid use of its Moroccan setting, as do the occasionally lovely backgrounds; there's the sense that the budget stretched to a bit of a research trip, or at least a copy of the relevant Rough Guide.  Though the flip side of this being set in North Africa is that the whole business comes off as depressingly racist; there turns out to be a plot reason for the female lead being white and blond despite supposedly being from an ancient Moroccan tribe, but that doesn't change how much she sticks out among all the obnoxious Arab stereotypes the film throws up elsewhere.  But, oh right, this was the paragraph where I was trying to be positive, right?  Well, the dub is shockingly decent, to the point where I almost stopped wishing for subtitles instead.  And, yeah, some nice music and pretty backgrounds.  That's about all I've got.

A.LI.CE, 1999, dir: Kenichi Maejima

If I'm being honest, there's a good chance that this one actually came out in 2000 and is thus not nineties anime by anyone's definition.  But the IMDB lists it as having been released in 1999, and anyway, I refuse to have watched it specifically to review here and then to find out all that effort was for nothing.  Because, yes, watching a CGI movie from 1999 (or even 2000) can be a heck of a chore.  This is, after all, a year (or two) before what I'd argue to be the first Pixar film that you can still enjoy today without cringing a little at the animation, Monster's Inc.  And this was an era, you may remember, when the technology was advancing at a rate of knots, so that a gap of a year or two is nothing to be sniffed at.

With all of that said, A.LI.CE still looks like crap.  And I suspect it more or less looked like crap when it came out.  After all, Final Fantasy IX was released in 2000, and the CG cut-scenes there are head and shoulders above every moment of Maejima's movie.  There are odd shots that haven't aged too badly, but you could count then on both hands and probably keep a couple of fingers free.  It doesn't help that the characters suffer worst.  While they're hardly the dead-eyed abominations that some later Western movies would produce - yes, The Polar Express, I'm looking at you, now get back in that uncanny valley! - they certainly don't look a damn thing like human beings.

Anyway, this is where I hoped I'd be saying that, despite resembling something the dog threw up after eating too much plastic and shiny things, A.LI.CE is redeemed by its story.  But nope, it's not.  It's maybe even a little bit dragged down by its story, since the narrative only really functions at all when it's focusing upon its characters - who are at least not offensive to spend time around, assuming you close your eyes.  But the one thing that won't distract anyone from somewhat horrid computer-generated animation is a derivative, overly tangled tale that ties itself into at least one knot too many because someone saw Planet of the Apes and reasoned that the only way to travel into the future is accidentally via space shuttle.

Yet I don't altogether resent the time I spent with A.LI.CE.  I certainly don't recommend it, hell no, but it at least fit well with the whole cultural archeology aspect of these posts.  There's something fascinating about watching a film from less than two decades ago that feels so irretrievably lost to the dustbin of time.  Even crappy hand-drawn animation has its moments of charm, but CG films from before the point when CG became an adequate tool for the making of films are considerably less watchable than, say for example, silent cinema from a century ago.  With traditional animation, A.LI.CE would have been mere silly fun, maybe even quite likable silly fun - and it sort of even is, in places - but it's hard not to get distracted by the sheer goddamn ugliness on display.

Urusei Yatsura Movie 5: The Final Chapter, 1988, dir: Satoshi Dezaki

We know, of course, that the fifth Urusei Yatsura movie would not in any way be the final chapter, because I've already reviewed the sixth film, Always My Darling.  Nevertheless, in all the ways that mean anything, this right here is the end of the Urusei Yatsura anime, based as it is on the final story arc of the Manga.

And what an ending!  I'd already decided by this point that I had no regrets about splashing out on these six DVDs, but that they conclude on such a near-perfect note is the icing on an already very icy cake.  For a start, The Final Chapter looks splendid, with a return to a standard of cinematic-quality animation we haven't seen since way back in Beautiful Dreamer - and frankly, four years is no small time in the development of anime as an art form, so if you wanted to try and convince me that this is the best-looking entry in the series, I certainly wouldn't fight you.

Plotwise, The Final Chapter isn't exactly ambitious: indeed, the elements are entirely familiar to someone who has, like me, only a cursory knowledge of the franchise.  So there's yet another invading suitor, yet another excuse to split up alien princess Lum and her sleazy human darling Moroboshi, and yet another take on the game of tag that sparked all of this madness in the first place.  But really, would we want anything but the familiar at this point?  A tale as weird and experimental as the aforementioned Beautiful Dreamer would be hugely inappropriate, and it's not as though there aren't original ingredients in the mix: for me, the mushroom-based technology and the pig chariot were particular highlights, but, this being Urusei Yatsura, there's no shortage of odd ideas scattered about.

Really, the worst you could say is that events get a bit exhausting in places - by the midpoint, I was certain I'd watched an entire film's worth of plot - but the movie levels out for a surprisingly emotional and, dare I say it, even rather insightful finale, which treats Lum and Moroboshi's relationship with just the right degree of seriousness while not trying to disguise that they are essentially dreadful people who shouldn't be allowed anywhere near each other.  Oh, and did I mention that it's funny?  I mean, not consistently laugh-out-loud funny, but I was chuckling at regular intervals, and often because that gorgeous animation allows for plenty of subtle (or not so subtle) sight gags.

Of course, you'd have to be a bit mad to introduce yourself to the Urusei Yatsura megafranchise with a film called The Final Chapter, and so I'm probably preaching to the converted here; indeed, to converts who had their epiphany nearly three whole decades ago.  So all I'll say is that, if you're cherry-picking your way through the movies, this one's essential, along with - if we're being harsh - Beautiful Dreamer and Remember My Love.  If we weren't being harsh, I'd chuck Only You in there as well, and add that it's quite staggering that there isn't a bad movie among the six.  So really, the thing to do is just to go out and track down the lot, and discover why there remains such an insane amount of love out there for this whole Urusei Yatsura business.

Knights of Ramune, 1997, dir: Yoshinori Sayanna

I confess, I was expecting Knights of Ramune to be terrible and ... well, to a degree it was, I suppose, if I'm being objective.  I mean, it's another title that's grown mildly notorious for showing more animated skin than is reasonable or necessary, and there's no getting past the amount of gratuitous fan service on display.  And again I'm reminded of how much I hate that term, because I'm a fan and there's nothing about the weirdly-proportioned characters in Knights of Ramune that's remotely titillating, however many times they strip off for the most tenuous of reasons!  I'd have felt a great deal more serviced if the creators had just binned that entire aspect of the show and focused on everything else, because everything else is - well, kind of good, actually.

I mean, not great.  But the tale of holy virgins Cacao and Parfait, who finds themselves tasked to find a prophesied saviour of the galaxy only to discover that said saviour is a warmongering scumbag who gets his kicks from molesting his female crew members, is actually quite involving and original.  Cacao and Parfait are charming protagonists, Parfait particularly, who's a likable goof of the sort that nineties anime did so well, and it's nice to see a three hour OVA that actually has three hours of story to tell, instead of busying itself with fluff.  There are meaningful twists and turns along the way, and if some of them rely a bit heavily on a knowledge of a preceding series that I suspect was never released outside of Japan, nevertheless it's engaging stuff.

By about the third episode, the nudity largely fades into the background and loses any trace of naughtiness, which I suspect isn't what the creators intended.  Or maybe it was; there's the constant impression of a team trying to rise above the low bar they've been set.  The performances, direction, design, and everything else really, prove a great deal better than could be expected of a three hour show selling itself on the prospect of jiggling, anatomically improbable breasts.  In fact, the sci-fi elements are sort of terrific, and there's a fine little mech show struggling to fight its way out beneath the surface.  There's a brilliantly catchy opening theme too, and the animation is of that reliably good variety that never gets the appreciation it deserves; it's not a visually stunning show, but it's a visually engaging one, sure enough.

Yet it's hard to recommend.  It's not just all the fan service, because after all there must presumably be people out there who find that appealing, and it's pretty innocuous at the end of the day.  But there's also all the sexualised violence that the villainous Ramunes dishes out, which the show can never decide how it wants to present, or how much it wants to condemn.  Again, there are signs that someone somewhere would have liked to treat the material more seriously, and there's actually an interesting subplot going on with Ramunes and his devoted, oppressed harem - but that doesn't change how creepy and unpleasant things gets in the moment.

Despite its manifest flaws, I enjoyed Knights of Ramune quite a bit, but I really have no idea if anyone else would.  Certainly the tiny handful of reviews I've managed to dig up would suggest not.  Though the one that criticizes it for trying to meld Slayers and Gundam gets pretty close to nailing what I enjoyed, with the difference that where that reviewer felt the show failed utterly, I couldn't help but be drawn to it's baffling meld of high-concept, mech-driven SF and daft, light-hearted comedy.  And maybe it's only the dubious benefit of hindsight that makes the smashing together of nineties anime clichés seem appealing, but what the heck; this blog series is about nothing if it's not about the dubious benefits of hindsight!


Not a great batch, all told, but I'm not bitter.  Urusei Yatsura was a fine finale to an excellent series of movies and Knights of Ramune was a burst of silly fun at a point when I really needed some silly fun.  Sometimes that's enough, right?

As noted above, there really is a heck of a lot of stuff waiting for me to review, so I haven't a clue what comes next, or whether it'll be any good.  But for the first time in a considerable number of posts, I feel hopeful!

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26, Part 27, Part 29]

Sunday, 5 November 2017

A Taste of The Ursvaal Exchange

It occurred to Mike and I that, with the release of The Black River Chronicles: The Ursvaal Exchange just around the corner, people out there might be interesting in reading a little sample of it beforehand.  It's still a day or two off being handed in, but basically I'm just proof-reading and the book's finished; so if you're reading this post then you're one of the very first people to get a look at it!  Without further ado, here's the opening scene...
So far, Durren thought - as he dodged to avoid a wad of saliva that splashed with a hiss against the trunk of the tree beside him - level two was turning out to be an awful lot like level one.
"Watch out for their spit!" he yelled to no-one in particular. "It burns."
"We wouldn't have to watch out if someone hadn't picked a campsite near a swamp," snapped back Tia.
Durren withdrew a hasty pace. The thing before him was monstrous: its slit eyes were yellow and bulbous, its mouth was a gash almost too wide for its head, its pale throat beat with a hypnotic pulse, and its skin was a crust of mottled purple. Nevertheless, despite the fact that what he was looking at was big as a large dog, he knew that the creature was basically a toad. And he was struggling to feel really intimidated by a giant toad.
Then the monster opened its mouth - the sight of that gaping cavity was almost paralyzing - and Durren barely had a moment to react as its tongue flicked out. He threw himself left, and the cord of pink flesh whipped past his ear, speckling him with stinging dribbles of saliva.
All right, he admitted to himself, that was intimidating.
Durren just kept to his feet. Nevertheless, he managed to free his bow from his shoulder and nock an arrow to the string, almost in the same smooth motion. That done, he spared a glance to make sure the others were all intact.
Hule was over to his right, and the big fighter already had his sword in hand. His expression was dour, though; he didn't look half as pleased as he normally did at the prospect of putting the weapon to use.
Arein was close to Hule, and the dwarfish wizard was conspicuously not casting any spells. Durren had hoped she was finally getting over her resistance to using magic, but apparently not today.
Tia, meanwhile, was to his left, the black of her cloak camouflaging her amid the shade of the trees. That she was still here at all surprised him; her first instinct as a rogue tended to be to vanish and attend to matters on her own.
All three of them were retreating towards the center of the clearing where they'd made their fire and raised their two tents, and Durren did the same - if only to get out of range of that hideous tongue. He dared one more glance, this time seeking their observer: the leathery, one-eyed entity that Arein, for reasons that made sense solely to her, had chosen to name Pootle. He spotted the little orb hovering near the treetops, staring down at them with grave attention.
In theory, someone back at the academy was watching them via the spell attuned to Pootle, and in theory they'd send help if the situation should grow too dangerous. But the five of them had been in some exceedingly dangerous situations before now and help had been conspicuous by its absence, so Durren wasn't holding his breath.
After a half-dozen steps, there was nowhere left to retreat to. Durren could feel the canvas of the nearest tent pressing against his ankle. He didn't like the idea of killing these dumb beasts, which were only being hostile because they knew no better. Do no harm unless harm be done was one of the Black River Academy's many cryptic mantras, and they'd been taught from the outset that their weapons were a final recourse, to be used when options such as talking and running were thoroughly exhausted.
Well, they were surrounded on all sides, so they wouldn't be running, and while Durren was no expert on giant toads, he was confident that their unusual properties didn't extend to making conversation.
Then the choice was out of his hands. As though with one mind, the toads were advancing from the shade of the clearing's outer edge. They moved in flabby hops that made their entire bodies quiver and covered a distance Durren could hardly believe. The one that had picked him out closed half the gap between them in a single leap. Barely had it touched the ground before it was in the air again and sailing towards him, its cavernous maw stretched wide.
Durren threw himself lengthwise and loosed his arrow. He heard the slap of the toad's landing, but didn't get to see whether his shot had flown true until he rolled back to his feet. The toad had come to rest on the nearer tent, the one that was his and Hule's. Its impact had collapsed the canvas wall, tearing the guy ropes loose. Durren's arrow had entered through the creature's throat and exited above its right eye; he could see where the metal head jutted, dripping violet ichor. Sprawled with arms and legs protruding, the toad's body practically covered the deflated tent.
Durren's first thought was, Now where am I meant to sleep? His second was the realization that the animal was dead and that he had killed it.
To his right, Hule was hacking at a cluster of three toads, all of which were managing to dodge aside with startling agility. Arein was waving her staff in the face of another, which seemed to Durren a singular waste of the most powerful tool at their disposal.
He considered telling her so, but by then a second toad had him in its goggle-eyed sights; he was alerted by a sizzle and a wet splatter, which he recognized for the sound of acid saliva striking the surviving tent. The culprit was glaring at him, in as much as an oversized amphibian was capable of glaring. Its mouth hung open, ready to unleash more spit or perhaps to unfurl its bullwhip tongue.
Durren cursed beneath his breath. Their actual quest had gone so smoothly - too smoothly, it seemed now. They'd been sent to sweep and clear some old mine workings supposedly infested with goblins, but they'd soon realized that the goblins had departed long ago, leaving only foulness and clutter to testify to their residence. Nevertheless, they'd explored from top to bottom, and Hule had insisted on drawing a map, even though Tia was adamant that the mining company would certainly have more accurate maps of their own.
But reaching level two, they'd been told, meant new challenges, and one of those was that they could no longer simply have Pootle transport them back to the academy once their quest was complete. Now they were to camp the night in the wilderness and travel the next day to a given extraction point.
All of which should have been straightforward - except that barely had they raised their tents and set a fire when the toads had found them.
Nearby, Arein yelped. Durren's initial impulse was to run and help her; the moment's distraction was enough that, when the toad spat again, he almost failed to duck aside in time. Immediately it seized upon the opportunity to hop closer - so that its mouth was suddenly right in front of him, like a fleshy passage into some awful netherworld. Durren's shock sent the arrow he loosed wide, grazing the creature's warty head and leaving a streak of violet, but otherwise merely making the beast angrier than it already was.
There was something unreasonably menacing about an enraged giant toad. Though Durren knew he should grasp for another arrow or for his short sword, he chose instead to stumble backwards, until a wash of heat alerted him to the fact that there was nowhere left to go - not with their campfire directly behind him. To right and left he was conscious of the others fighting, and instinct assured him that they too were being driven back. Hemmed in and encircled, they'd be in serious trouble.
Durren expected the toad to press its advantage; one good hop and it would be on him. Rather, it shifted sideways, keeping the same distance, its springy limbs unsuited to such careful maneuvering. Durren wouldn't have known where to begin in reading toad physiognomy, yet something in the way its eyes flickered told him it was troubled. Maybe his arrow had deterred the purple monstrosity after all, or maybe - 
"Fire!" Durren cried. Realizing that word alone wasn't useful, he added, "They don't like the fire ... that's why they're not coming any closer."
With his free hand, he snatched a brand from the flames, choosing a branch that blazed fiercely at one end and was untouched at the other. Still, the heat was intense. Durren ignored the discomfort and, not daring to give too much consideration to what he was about to do, charged towards the nearby toad. He bellowed incoherently - did toads even have ears? - and flailed with his improvised weapon, drawing stripes of fire across the air.
For a second he thought that he was wrong and that he was charging straight into the toad's yawning mouth: no animal, he felt, should be able to open its jaw so wide. Then the toad let out a raucous trill and took a rapid rearwards hop. Somehow it managed to flop around in midair, and its second bound carried it beyond the edge of the clearing, this time heading in the right direction.
By then Durren's torch was beginning to waver, and the licking flames threatened his fingers. He threw the brand after the retreating toad, wrapped his hand in his sleeve, and dashed back to the fire to claim another. He saw that both Hule and Tia had followed his example, and Arein had belatedly recalled that she was capable of casting spells: a ball of flickering orange burned about the tip of her outstretched staff.
Durren snatched up a second branch, but by that time there was really no need. Hule and Tia had both managed to dissuade their respective foes, and Arein was having even more success. The toads evidently weren't at all happy with this being not a great deal taller than themselves who could conjure fire out of thin air. Everywhere they were backing off or turning and fleeing, accompanied by a chorus of panicked croaking.
Seconds later and the battle was over. Nothing was to be seen of the toads except for a few scattered bodies and the desolation they'd left in their wake. Durren and Hule's tent might be ruined, and Arein and Tia's had three holes in its flank, seared by acid spittle; it wouldn't be offering much in the way of shelter if the gray skies overhead should unleash their burden of rain.
"Is everyone all right?" Durren asked.
Remembering how Arein had cried out, he realized that a gash had been burned in her left sleeve and that the red of singed skin was visible through the tear. Like the tent, she had evidently fallen foul of the toads' spit. Thankfully, the burn appeared slight, and Hule already had his water flask in one hand and a roll of bandage in the other. The fighter himself was unscathed, though his boots and trousers were filthy with mud; the ground of the clearing had been churned up by feet both humanoid and toad.
Durren looked to Tia, content in the knowledge that out of all of them she was certain to have escaped harm: uncommon dexterity was only one of the traits that made her wholly unsuited to being a mere level two student. Sure enough, she wasn't even out of breath. At that moment, having plucked a throwing knife from between the bulging eyes of a dead toad, she was wiping off the violet gunk that passed for their blood in the long grass.
Tia slipped the knife back into the bandolier she wore inside her cloak. "They won't stay away for long," she said. "We need to get packed up and away from here." She turned on Durren then, and her dark gray skin was darker still for the frown she wore. "And I don't care whether you're the ranger; I'm choosing where we spend the night."
"Look," Durren said, "this wasn't my fault. I mean, it was my fault, but it could have happened to anyone."
Tia's pale eyes were bright amid the shadows of her hood. "Oh ... really?"
Her tone sent a shiver through Durren's spine, but he wasn't willing to back down. "They just - you know - wandered here. Sometimes monsters do that. I mean, wherever you camp there's always a chance of that happening."
Tia's glare somehow intensified. "Durren, this wasn't some random encounter. This happened because you picked the wrong campsite. Now are you going to stand here arguing, or are you actually going to be some help?"
He gave up. She was right. If he concentrated, he could catch the acrid odor of unclean water that should have alerted him; there was a swamp nearby, and even a brand-new first level student should have the brains to appreciate that where there was a swamp there would be something unpleasant making its home. The fact was, the tiredness of a long day trudging through the mines had made him sloppy, as the stench of goblin refuse had muted his sense of smell.
He knew he should apologize. He would have done but for Tia's manner. He wasn't the only person who'd ever made a mistake, and her inability to be pleasant or even basically well-mannered hardly counted as good teamwork. Worse, he suspected she had let him go wrong to make a point; if she'd known the spot was no good, why couldn't she simply have told him so? Her attitude was just as much a liability to their party as his own act of carelessness.
Well, maybe not just as much. Still, he had no intention of saying sorry until she did. Except that Tia never would - Durren wasn't persuaded that dun-elves understood the concept - and that meant the rest of the quest was likely to be awkward at best.
With a sigh, he plodded over to make a start on the task of hauling the toad he'd killed off the remains of his and Hule's tent. This had already been a long day, and he had a hunch that he might not have seen the worst of it yet. Bloodthirsty giant amphibians were one thing, but he'd rather face those than Tia's bad temper.
Have they seen the last of those toads?  Does Durren stand a chance against an enraged Tia?  Does giant purple toad blood wash out?  The only way you'll find the answers to these and many other questions is to grab a copy of The Black River Chronicles: The Ursvaal Exchange in a couple of week's time!